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Category Archive for '6-2011 Reviews'

Always an astute observer and subtle writer about human nature, Anita Desai is at her best here, creating a group of three novellas, each of which reveals the interplay between a main character dealing with universal issues and a second character (sometimes more) who sees the world and its values quite differently. The result is book that feels almost sacred, in the sense that it is morally serious and filled with thematically weighty stories. These stories, however, reveal subtle, unspoken lessons – neither moralistic, obvious, nor absolute. In all the novellas, the main character, approaching the end of a problem, might well conclude that what s/he wants, “[is] dead, a dead loss, a waste of time,” a statement actually made in the final novella, “The Artist of Disappearance.” For the involved reader, however, “the loss” is not the point. What the reader gains is a new appreciation of the small joys and great sorrows which fill the lives of plain people in rural India trying to find beauty and, perhaps, the fulfillment of dreams within an overwhelming reality. All the characters want to preserve something beautiful and important to them, but all must persevere against forces which consider their own goals to be more important than those of the people with whom they are dealing. Ultimately, each main character becomes an “artist of disappearance,” either physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

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An early novel written in 1989 and found among the papers of Roberto Bolano after his premature death in 2003, The Third Reich, is an odd but often mesmerizing story of obsession—specifically with the playing of a war game based on the actions taken by the German Reich during World War II. Udo Berger, the German national champion of this highly competitive and addictive game, is a young man, barely out of his teens, when he and his lover, the gorgeous but shallow Ingeborg, take a vacation to the Costa Brava, where Udo used to vacation as a child. Shortly after their arrival, they meet Charly, a mechanic, and Hanna, fellow Germans also on vacation, who are staying at a hotel nearby. Their meeting seems fortuitous for Inge, since Charly and Hanna are out for a good time, with non-stop drinking and partying, and Udo would rather stay in his room. He has demanded a five foot table so he can set up a game, The Third Reich, where he pores over strategy while trying to write an article for publication in a magazine for those addicted as he is. Ultimately, the novel takes on some of the themes and, certainly, the tone of the German Faust legend, in which an academic sold his soul for unlimited knowledge and pleasure.

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Anyone who is already a fan of Jo Nesbo and his nail-biting Nordic noir mysteries will enjoy this non-stop, action-packed continuation of the Harry Hole series. Many of the familiar characters (and enemies) are back as Harry is persuaded to return from Hong Kong, where he has been spending his “hiatus” from the Oslo Crime Squad in an alcoholic haze. He is now in debt to the Hong Kong Triad, which as taken his passport to prevent his leaving without paying his debts. Three gruesome murders have taken place back in Oslo while he has been gone, however, and investigators are exploring the possibility of yet another serial killer on the loose. Harry Hole is the best in the business in tracking down serial killers, having just resolved the case of The Snowman, a particularly vicious killer of women, and the Oslo Crime Squad wants him back. By far the most complicated of the Harry Hole novels so far, this one is a special challenge at six hundred eleven pages, and readers of The Snowman will have an advantage in understanding some of the characters who reappear here.

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In her final novel, Brazilian novelist/poet Clarice Lispector (1920 – 1977) writes an eerie, almost supernatural tale of Macabea, a nineteen-year-old woman almost totally devoid of personality, opinion, thoughts, and even feelings. Her story is being told by Roderigo S.M., a writer, similarly isolated, without a long-term idea of what he wants to write, though he says, as he begins the story, that he has “glimpsed in the air the feeling of perdition on the face of a northeastern girl [Macabea].” He tells the reader that his story, whatever it will be, will be both exterior and explicit in style but will contain secrets. He will also have no pity, and he wants the story to be cold. “This isn’t just narrative, it’s above all primary life that breathes, breathes, breathes,” he states. When Macabea arrives in Rio, where she lives with several other girls, she never contemplates her future or thinks much about it at all. “Did she feel she was living for nothing? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so,” the narrator muses. A trip to a fortune teller and its aftermath eventually provide the turning point of the novel. Irony builds upon irony as the author explores who we are, how we know, how we fit into the grand scheme of life, and ultimately, whether there actually is any “grand scheme.” In this odd but peculiarly thought-provoking novel, the reader will often be as confused and conflicted as the narrator, but the book may be unique in its subject matter and approach to writing, and after a slow start, I became enchanted with it.

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Zimbabwean writer Ian Holding, a school teacher in Harare, is a white settler who has decided to stay in Zimbabwe, a country riven with violence for many years. Robert Mugabe, a leader of Zimbabwe’s liberation movement against the British, was elected to power in 1980 and remains in power to this day, supported by his army. Over the past thirty years, the economic situation in Zimbabwe has worsened. In this novel Holding writes two parallel stories, divided into four parts, which intersect at the end and provide a kind of conclusion, though not necessarily resolution. The first part is a dramatic, horrifying, and immensely sad story of a post-apocalyptic “society” in which a few survivors try to stay alive in a bombed out and completely devastated city. In Part Two, the scene shifts to the journal of Ian, a schoolteacher whose family has lived on a farm in the highland for decades before emigrating – the parents to Australia, one brother to London, and one to Canada. Only Ian remains behind, and he, too, is thinking of leaving. Dramatic, horrifying, and filled with vibrant language which swirls around, creating word pictures which the reader will often find difficult to accept, this novel is a heartfelt cry for understanding in a place where it appears to be rare.

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